Oil industry challenges rules meant to stop train explosions

BILLINGS, Mont. — The U.S. oil industry has filed a court challenge to new rules aimed at reducing the risk of catastrophic accidents involving crude moved by rail, following a string of fiery derailments in recent years.

The American Petroleum Institute’s petition to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., would set aside a requirement for improvements to railroad tank cars that are known to fail during accidents.

“We definitely support upgrades to the fleet,” Straessle said. “It’s a matter of timing.”

At least 24 oil trains have been involved in major fires or derailments during the past decade in the U.S. and Canada, including a 2013 accident in Quebec that killed 47 people. The latest derailment came last week, when a train carrying crude from the Bakken region derailed and caught fire in central North Dakota, forcing the evacuation of a small town.

The Department of Transportation rules unveiled May 1 call for an estimated 43,000 cars that primarily haul crude to be phased out or retrofitted by 2020. Similar improvements to cars primarily carrying ethanol must be completed by 2023.

Transportation Department spokeswoman Suzi Emmerling said the rules will make crude transportation safer.

“We believe the rule will stand up to challenge in court and remain hopeful that industries impacted by these changes will accept their safety obligations and follow the new regulations,” she said.

The petition filed late Monday also asks the court to set aside a requirement for advanced braking systems on fuel-hauling trains. The oil industry contends the brakes are unproven and would be too costly.

The braking rule has drawn similar objections from the rail industry, which is considering its own legal challenge to the rule, said Ed Greenberg, spokesman for Association of American Railroads.

Railroads also have concerns about tank cars, but they are the opposite of the oil industry’s worries. Railroads want the cars — many of which are owned by oil companies — to be fitted with “thermal blankets” that wrap around the tank to prevent fires from spreading during a derailment.

Another challenge to the rules could come from environmental groups and safety advocates who say the deadlines set by the Transportation Department are not fast enough.

The Sierra Club and Forest Ethics are among the groups considering a court appeal or an administrative request for transportation officials to reconsider the May 1 rule, said Kristen Boyles, an attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice.

Also of concern is a provision exempting trains with fewer than 35 tank cars from the tougher construction requirement.

“You could have 34 crude oil cars on a train and none of them would have to meet the news standards,” Boyles said.

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